To say this basketball season has not treated the South Carolina men kindly would be an understatement.
Entering the final week of the regular season, the Gamecocks sit at a dismal 6-13 (4-11 SEC) and are fresh off a 101-73 drubbing at the hands of Arkansas (which, in fairness, is a top-15 team). Hot seat talk is starting up for embattled coach Frank Martin, who has tested positive for COVID twice in the past year amid the team’s struggles to stay healthy and on the court. A squad that was projected by many in the preseason to be NCAA Tournament quality has shown itself to be anything but, plagued by inconsistency and a lack of scoring — frustrating hallmarks of the Martin era that still haven’t been stamped out.
It hasn’t all been bad for South Carolina: The Gamecocks netted a signature victory against then-No. 22 Florida, and swept rival Georgia to somehow keep the 10-game winning streak alive and well in one of the program’s most tumultuous years. Off the court, the school also escaped an NCAA investigation without further punishment, which is always cause for celebration. But this campaign has nonetheless been bitterly disappointing, especially in the light of what seemed like reasonable expectations for success.
Of course, this has been an odd year for pretty much all basketball teams. COVID delays and cancellations have wreaked havoc on a number of programs and schedules, and South Carolina was among the hardest hit, losing the entire month of December. With the Gamecocks being unable to even practice, it’s hard to overestimate how much of an effect that could’ve had on this team, particularly in the crucial, early part of the season when players are building chemistry and otherwise learning how best to play with each other and within the system. There’s no telling how deep of a hole that loss of developmental time dug for this team, and right out of the gate to boot. Squaring off against teams that lost little or no time to COVID only highlighted this, often painfully.
But then again, folks in Columbia have been restless about Frank Martin for a few years now. While he’ll deservedly go down in USC history for that magical Final Four run in 2017, no real recruiting gains were ever realized from that accomplishment. As athletic director Ray Tanner himself pointed out recently, the Gamecocks have missed the NCAA Tournament eight times in Martin’s nine years. And under his leadership, this program has seen an absolutely baffling amount of transfers and roster turnover, while also establishing an annual tradition of managing to lose to at least one small school in the out-of-conference schedule that should’ve been woefully out-talented (and this has even included Division II programs).
After the Arkansas loss, Martin summed up the season by calling it “one of them years,” and there’s no doubt outside factors have conspired against the Gamecocks. But even Martin acknowledged there were internal factors at work as well, adding “I didn’t expect some of the stuff we’re dealing with, and I ain’t talking about COVID.” So the question becomes: Can he fix it? And does South Carolina trust him to do so?
The Gamecocks are on a similar precipice now with Martin that they were with Will Muschamp. The downward trend in the football program was evident and not just one bad year, and the opportunity given to find a way out of it came up empty. So, USC made the pragmatic choice and moved on, despite a COVID-altered season (and the related budgetary concerns) being a convenient excuse to keep Muschamp around for another year. But it’s harder to pull the plug on one of the most accomplished coaches in the school’s basketball history, so USC could elect to wait out of respect to said accomplishments, as well as COVID difficulties. And on a practical level, moving on from one very expensive coach was tough enough on the books in a year lacking revenue; moving on from Martin so soon after that may not be feasible.
With the SEC Tournament on the horizon, the Gamecocks have one more chance to end the season on a high note. Short of a miracle, though, they’ll be sitting at home during March Madness once again. Apathy has taken hold among too many fans, which undoubtedly helped spur the school to act with football. We’ll have to wait and see what the administration decides with basketball.